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Salman Rushdie, and the Threats to Free Speech

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‘I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death’. — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, 14th February, 1989.

‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.’ — Salman Rushdie

On the 12th of August, 2022, a 75 year old novelist was stabbed, several times, at a literary conference in Upstate New York by an armed assailant. That novelist was Salman Rushdie. This act  of violence was the inevitable culmination of a 30 year crusade against Rushdie—and the Western value of Freedom of Expression—by Islamic Fundamentalists.

It’s difficult for our generation—for anyone, really, under the age of 40—to realise the phenomenal history behind this recent event. Most people, for instance, have heard of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses controversy. But, until the brutal awakening of the 12th August, few had quite comprehended how loud, dominant, and divisive a cultural issue it had been in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—how many lives had been lost, threatened, and ruined; how many books had been burned. It’s no surprise, then, that in the mid-2000s, many commentators—including Rushdie himself—considered the Fatwa to have been a ‘prologue’ to 9/11 and other terrorist activities of the 2000s. But, alas, many commentators—including Rushdie himself—considered the danger of the Fatwa, and of Islamic Fundamentalism, to have passed with the increasingly impotent ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The Satanic Verses was published on the 26th of September, 1988. There was an immediate uproar. Rushdie and his publishers, Viking Press and Penguin, were the recipients of death threats. Book burnings occurred in Bolton, Bradford, and even in Parliament Square.

But then, on the 14th of February, 1989, things changed: what had been a thuggish, medieval campaign against a novel became a matter of life-and-death. ‘Let’s burn the book’, as often happens, became ‘Let’s burn the heretic’. The Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a Fatwa—an unretractable decree of Islamic law—stating that Rushdie, and all others associated with the novel, should be killed. From then onwards, bookstores across the Western world were bombed—even such a quaint and unassuming place as the Penguin bookstore in York—and people were attacked. Ettore Capriolo, the novel’s Italian translator, was attacked and severely wounded; Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death. Many other writers, translators, editors, and publishers were injured or killed in the period of violence which followed the Fatwa. Rushdie would spend several years under 24-hour police protection, constantly moving about to avoid any leak of his whereabouts. Recently, however, he’d come to enjoy a normal life, telling The Times how he was able to take the Subway, in his adopted city New York, without any protection. Then came the abhorrent reminder of a half-forgotten past, in the form of 24-year-old Hadi Matar, who wasn’t even born when the Fatwas made.

The Satanic Verses is a novel, amongst other things, concerned with the Immigrant experience of the United Kingdom. Its frame narrative tells the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chimcha, actors of Indian Muslim origin, who are magicked from a hijacked plane, which crashes over the English channel, into England. The novel’s title refers to the legend that a few verses spoken by the Prophet Muhammed were later withdrawn on the grounds that he had been deceived by the Devil into thinking that they came from God—an episode which is highly problematic, and not often believed, in the Islamic tradition. Other such moments of ‘blasphemy’ occur in the novel: for instance, the novel features a brothel staffed by prostitutes who are named after Muhammed’s wives. Thus, the controversy—but, as Rushdie has pointed out, ‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.’

The importance of The Satanic Verses controversy is that it highlighted the deep fissure between Western values and those of Fundamentalist Islam. In Western thought, the belief in Freedom of Expression—that no one should be attacked, killed, or endangered for their views—is one of the few sublime, undeniable, rights of man; however, in Fundamentalist Islam, there is a belief that no one should be allowed to undermine or attack the ‘honour of the prophet’ or critique Islam through satire, polemic or any other means—such as, clearly, the novel. It is a fissure which has reared its ugly head consistently since, notably with the assasination of Theo Van Gogh and in the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

In the 1980s, the Western response was overwhelmingly supportive of Rushdie—other than in a few notable exceptions, such as Cat Stevens, who publicly supported the Fatwa, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who argued that the Blasphemy Act (now abolished) should be extended to include Islam. Back then, the Freedom of Expression was still cherished—which is evident in the fact that book burnings, as disagreeable as they are, were allowed to happen. The danger is that, now, it seems a little less dear to the citizens of the West.

The attempted assasination of Salman Rushdie, I hope, will awaken our voices from their long and passive silence. Freedom of Expression in the West is under attack. We need look no further than the examples of Kathleen Stock and JK Rowling to  realise that death threats are still, very much, happening. Rowling’s own tweet wishing Rushdie the best was met with a chilling response: ‘You’re next.’

Some people, I fear, will see the attack on Rushdie as a discouragement. Don’t Speak. Don’t Write. Don’t Offend. Let us remember, then, at this moment, the words of Voltaire: ‘I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.’

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